One expert in London remarked on the recent burst of commentary about reversing Brexit by quipping that it had been such a disaster that Europe recognised it needed the UK.
It’s a double-sided observation because Brexit is not really working for the UK but also the Europeans are seeing that a weakened Britain is not doing any good for the region’s place in the world.
This is as good as acknowledged in the latest plans for the continent that are emerging from Berlin and Paris. Europe itself is drawing up a blueprint that moves beyond the “my way or no way” attitudes often displayed by Brussels in the past.
The initial response of the EU to the UK leaving the bloc was a punchy assertion of its own cohesion and ambitions as a top-tier international bloc.
Seven or so years ago was a time when there was a global obsession with America’s decline. Relative to China, the US was seen as on the wane, leading to a reordering of the global pecking order.
Into this, the EU wanted to cast off shackles of domestic introspection. It had visions of a global three-legged stool in which all significance revolved around the US, China and the EU blocs.
For the UK, the idea of leaving the EU was perversely in part rooted in this logic. With its own history and global ambitions, London did not want to trim itself to following the EU guiderails. It could not, for example, throw its lot explicitly away from US interests as Brussels seemed to want.
It even had its own mercantile ideas about China and India that it wanted to pursue for itself in Brexit.
The war in Ukraine has been just as significant as Brexit, probably more so, in provoking a reassessment among the Europeans. For a start, the British were far more agile in backing Kyiv both ahead of the invasion and in escalating the international support for Ukraine.
With a greater focus on the strategic importance of the North Atlantic seas, London also made new alliances with the Scandinavian countries and built stronger links with the Baltics and Poland.
Ukraine matters to the European power equation not just in the need to stand together against Russia. It highlighted that even as the rest of the world has questioned the US, Washington has become far more powerful relative to its European allies.
Despite all the talk around the EU challenging US digital dominance and trade protectionism, it is a fact of the northern hemisphere that the transatlantic relationship has not become more balanced. In fact, it is more dominated by the US as the saga proved when Germany would only grant Leopard II tanks to Kyiv after the US said it would send a batch of Abrams main battle tanks.
Ukraine wasn’t even asking for Abrams tanks, which run on jet fuel. US President Joe Biden said last week the first would arrive soon after the Leopards. Officials have reassured the Ukrainians that they have been tweaked to use more available petrol supplies.
What America wants from Europe is not only stronger defence but some sign that the continent’s countries are able to build consensus and avoid splits.
With a new realism on display in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, the search is on for meaningful change. A task force jointly set up by the French and Germans last week reported, making headlines in Britain, that the new multi-tier Europe was on offer for the UK’s return.
What the blueprint did offer was a glimpse of the challenges for the EU as it seeks a new model for Europe. The idea is the inclusion of Ukraine – which has been offered EU membership – as well as the Balkans, the more nationalistic Eastern Europeans, as well as the Swiss and the British under a European umbrella.
The authors frame their thinking as unity in diversity in Europe. Their approach set out four distinct tiers of the future edifice. An inner circle that drives in the direction of the EU itself with integrated politics and decision-making functions.
It foresees a moment of truth for the EU27 in which some states are detached, not able to agree to as much pooled sovereignty as is required. In this event, the report recommends a safeguarding of core standards such as the rule of law.
The third tier is a middle ground between enlargement of membership and the currently friction-filled accession process. This would allow membership of the single market or customs union. It could even be a place where alliances are formalised, such as the EU plus the members of a future European Security Council.
The fourth gear of co-operation is the European Political Community, which already held two continent-wide gatherings in Prague and Chisinau, Moldova.
The authors suggested that the new European leadership from 2024 should see this as an exercise in securing the bloc’s fundamentals first, cementing geopolitical interests second and making sure it was capable of conflict resolution third.
What that means is making Europe work first. It is a task the whole world sorely needs to succeed for global stability.
DEBATE: Should the UK rejoin the EU?